The home straight: Questions for the Premier League’s top six

Date published: Friday 31st March 2017 8:20

Chelsea

When do they win it?
It might well be the only relevant question left in Chelsea’s season, given their dominance since the end of September. The most likely answer is April 30, with their trip to Goodison Park, but any slip-ups before then and the home game against Middlesbrough the following week may involve a coronation.

N’Golo Kante or Eden Hazard for Player of the Year?
Perhaps it comes down to whether you belief destruction or creation to be more crucial in a title success, but Hazard and Kante are the only two viable contenders to be named PFA Player of the Year. Kante is heavy odds-on favourite, but would a repetition of Hazard’s late-season form in 2015/16 earn him a football writers’ accolade at least? 

Experimentation, or simply press home advantage?
It is rare that a manager gets the opportunity to test new systems and strategies against an opponent truly trying their best. Antonio Conte changed the course of this Premier League season by switching to a 3-4-3 formation against Arsenal in September, and has not changed since. When the title is secured, will he experiment with Plans B and C ahead of next season?

 

Tottenham

Who fills the Harry Kane hole?
Tottenham are not the only top-six club blighted by injury to a significant player, but few are more crucial to a team’s success than Kane at Spurs. The striker has scored or assisted 43% of their league goals, and had scored 15 goals in 13 games before injury against Millwall. Whether it be Heung Son-Min, Vincent Janssen or a group of attacking midfielders each swapping positions and taking turns to be a nominal centre forward, Mauricio Pochettino needs to find a short-term solution to a significant headache.

Can Ben Davies stay strong?
With Danny Rose still injured and reports linking him with a £50m move to Manchester City, now really is the time for Davies to find some form. The left-back has never been a regular since his £10m move from Swansea, and has too often been the obvious weak link in Tottenham’s defence when he has played. If ever Pochettino needed him to step up…

When does the Fear set in?
St Totteringham might be an entirely meaningless concept, but finishing above Arsenal in the league is anything but that for Tottenham supporters. The last time it happened was in 1994/95, with last year’s late-season collapse allowing Arsenal to again continue that tradition. Spurs might not have a fighting chance of the title this season, but an unprecedentedly competitive top six dictates that Champions League qualification is far from secure. Can Tottenham avoid a repeat of last season, or will that same fear haunt them again?

 

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Manchester City

Does Gabriel Jesus walk straight back in?
Now back in Brazil to continue his rehabilitation, Gabriel spoke on Sunday to reiterate that he hopes to return from injury before the end of the season. That gives Pep Guardiola a decision to make. Does he stick with Sergio Aguero, still a very capable finisher but far from the perfect fit for Guardiola’s system, or rush back a striker who hit the ground sprinting in January? Could City’s top four place depend on the correct call?

Will Yaya Toure’s fatigue truly kick in?
Guardiola may have been too hasty to freeze out Toure at the start of the season, but the Ivorian will surely leave Manchester this summer. In recent weeks – particularly during big games – Toure has flagged noticeably after 60 minutes, leaving him literally unfit for purpose. As the games add up, Toure’s energy levels are only likely to decrease. Does Guardiola keep the faith, or leave Toure as an option from the bench. With Ilkay Gundogan injured, Fernandinho required at right-back and Fabian Delph Fabian Delph, does he have any choice?

Do we ever get to see John Stones AND Vincent Kompany?
Sunday, October 23. That is a significant date in Manchester City’s season, because it marks the only time this season that Stones and Kompany have started a Premier League game together. For all the merited criticism of City this season, only once has Guardiola had his first-choice central defensive pair. Finally, City’s captain is nearing match fitness. Is being able to leave Nicolas Otamendi on the bench the boost Guardiola needs?

Liverpool

Have they beaten their ‘other team’ hoodoo?
“The performance was good enough to win the game but the result is massive for us, it’s the first ugly game we have won.” There was a good reason that Jurgen Klopp hailed the importance of the home win over Burnley. It might have only been the worst away team in the Premier League, but Liverpool have struggled most against teams who sit back, soak up possession and attack on the counter. We’ll soon find out whether that victory was a false dawn.

How do they cope without Lallana’s energy?
Of all the changes in Liverpool’s style and personnel since Klopp’s arrival, no player has transformed more than Adam Lallana. Used as a wide forward or winger by Brendan Rodgers, Lallana has flourished on the right of a midfield ‘3’ in Klopp’s 4-3-3. Lallana has contributed goals and assists, but it is his extraordinary energy that sets the tone for Liverpool’s pressing. He sprints and covers distance comfortably more than any teammate. Now Klopp will find out if Georginio Wijnaldum or Emre Can can carry out the same role. Or is this Kevin Stewart’s moment in the sun?

Can that defence stop the creaking?
Last season, the top four teams in the Premier League recorded 62 clean sheets between them, an average of 15.5 per team. So far this season, Liverpool have managed seven clean sheets. Perhaps Liverpool will be the exception to the normal rule, but just as likely is that their defensive incompetence will eventually cost them Champions League qualification. Perhaps this question should be ‘Does Liverpool’s top four position depend on Dejan Lovren?’; Liverpool have kept one clean sheet in the nine games he has missed.

 

Manchester United

Can Jose Mourinho release the shackles?
A multitude of attacking options do not necessarily equate to a fluent attack. Mourinho has Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Anthony Martial, Marcus Rashford, Juan Mata, Henrikh Mkhitaryan, Jesse Lingard, Wayne Rooney and Paul Pogba, yet are on course to score 59 goals in the league this season. Only once in the last 11 years have United scored fewer than 60 league goals, and that was during the Louis van Gaal dirge last season. Three of the players in the aforementioned list were recruited last summer at least partly to address an issue that still exists.

Should they risk prioritising the Europa League?
You may conclude that a squad with the quality of Manchester United’s should be able to compete on multiple fronts, but there is a growing case for Mourinho sacrificing the Premier League for European success. United are the favourites for the Europa League, and the teams second, third and fourth in the betting are fourth in Ligue 1 (Lyon), 11th in La Liga (Celta Vigo) and ninth in the Bundesliga (Schalke). With the Europa League champions avoiding the pre-tournament qualification that the Premier League’s fourth place will face, Mourinho may reasonably choose to place his eggs in the basket marked ‘Thursday nights’.

Who plays in defence now?
During the international break, Chris Smalling and Phil Jones perfected their Chuckle Brothers impressions when the former injured the latter in England training. Three days later, Smalling injured himself in training, leaving Mourinho with a headache he really didn’t need. If Luke Shaw continues to be persona non grata, United will have a back four of Antonio Valencia, Eric Bailly, Marcos Rojo and Daley Blind with very little behind them. Someone hide the ladders and black cats.

 

Arsenal

The usual final push?
In 2015/16, Arsenal went ten league games unbeaten at the end of the season.
In 2014/15, Arsenal won ten and drew three of their last 14 league games.
In 2013/14, Arsenal won their last five games of the season.
In 2012/13, Arsenal won eight and drew the other two of their last ten games of the season.
This time, they need to repeat that customary final push to break into the top four. Is this the end of the Champions League run?

Can they re-find their shooting boots?
I wrote here about how Arsenal’s form has faltered just as Alexis Sanchez’s performance level dropped, but that really is detailed in their shot numbers. Between the start of the season and the end of January, Arsenal averaged 15.8 shots per league game. Since then, they have averaged 11.0. Over that period, Arsenal rank 13th in the division. Asking the attack to bail out an often shambolic defence might seem unfair, but it is also Arsenal’s best hope of Champions League qualification.

Can Shkodran Mustafi save himself?
Sarah Winterburn chose Lucas Perez to be Arsenal’s representative in her ‘two months to impress’ top ten, but there were at least another three behind Perez in the queue. One of those is Mustafi, championed after his signing but very quickly afflicted by Arsenal’s ability to bring talented individuals down to the club’s own level. With Laurent Koscielny still Arsenal best central defender, Mustafi really needs to regain his confidence and aptitude if a) Arsenal are to stop conceding shonky goals, and b) the German is not to be viewed as a very expensive failure. He’s the fourth most expensive defender in history, for goodness sake.

Daniel Storey


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